If selecting a vice president just means picking someone safe who won't alter the tone or tenor of the 2012 race, then Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman are fine vice presidential selections for Mitt Romney. But if Romney decides to play against type, setting aside his instinct for total risk aversion, I'd recommend he consider the potential of Paul Ryan as his choice.
Here's the basic case. The general sentiment of the Ryan boomlet is this: unlike Pawlenty or Portman, Ryan changes the conversation in this election. The left might find that favorable; they believe Ryan's ideas are too politically toxic to win on them nationally. But there are a number of reasons I believe Ryan is a less risky choice than some might argue, and unlike those who believe Romney can win with his play-it-safe strategy, counting on the unemployment situation to vault him into the White House, I think Ryan changes the conversation in a way that would prove electorally helpful to Romney.
A Romney-Ryan ticket would refocus both campaigns on entitlements, fiscal policy, and issues of debt and deficit immediately - issues that Romney feels he can lead on, where Obama has not, and where Ryan is an expert in arguing in the public square. Ryan sends a message about the seriousness of the fiscal challenge we face, one that Portman and Pawlenty do not.
What's more, the attack is coming anyway. This fall, the left will tie Romney to Ryan's ideas regardless of whether he's the choice. The White House is going to blanket Florida with "they're going to kill you" ads; so if you're going to get the granny over the cliff ads anyway, why not get a guy fully experienced in responding to them?
Having your best defender on an area of policy on your ticket is an advantage. Ryan's ability to defend his policies, and his improvement in making the case for them, would be a strong asset for Romney. Ryan has been thoroughly subjected to the media gauntlet and the pressure of the White House. He is used to the hot lights now, and comfortable making the case for his ideas. Ryan's argument for his approach has also improved dramatically in the past year or so - where his opponents still talk numbers, he talks increasingly of morality.
Ryan may be more open to parachuting out of the House of Representatives now than he was a year ago, and while he has no executive experience, he is from a swing district, not red America. Ryan is used to having to win indies and moderate Democrats. He married into a prominent Democratic family and knows how to communicate in the Midwestern states Romney is clearly targeting. Ryan has been fully vetted, is a known quantity for the media, and is respected as intelligent and eloquent. All this serves to make him less risky than you might think.
Now I've been critical of Ryan's most recent budget plans, and skeptical of his shift to the middle on competitive bidding. He has his defects, and his voting record is more moderate than you might expect - on TARP, on the auto bailouts, and more. He has no foreign policy experience to speak of. But out of those reportedly being considered, I think Ryan has the best rapport with Romney, complements him well, excites the base, frustrates the left, and provides a ready defender for the White House's line of attack.
Portman still seems the likeliest choice to me, checking so many of the boxes of what Romney values and what he needs. Pawlenty has many advantages on paper, but he's about as exciting as boiled squash - even if he does give the best shoulder rubs. And I see nothing in Romney's past that would suggest a bolder pick than Ryan - someone like Bobby Jindal, who meets every distinction of being qualified for the presidency on day one, is just out of character for Romney. And if he does have the boldness to pick Ryan, I think it would help redefine this election as a serious choice between two paths - one which offers eternal accelerated growth in government and entitlements, and another which makes a serious attempt to take on our fiscal problems - instead of one that is just playing it safe and hoping to squeeze out a victory without also winning the argument about these competing ideas.